“But it’s not organic!” That was the protest from some of those who had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright upon seeing Site:168, the latest addition to the array of student-designed, -built, and -inhabited shelters that make up the “dorms” at the School of Architecture at Taliesin (where I serve as president). Truth be told, the whole point of the structure, designed by graduating student Richard Quittenton (who starts working at Herzog & de Meuron this January), is to question what the very notion of “organic,” “authentic,” or “real” means. That, in turn, seems to be the preoccupation of many of our students. Faced with fake news and fueled by questions about the very nature of reality, spurred by their reading of object-oriented ontology and similar theories that claim that the objects around us are always withdrawn from our understanding, they have turned to ways of evoking the very nature of organic or real. So it is with this particular design.
One of the favorite techniques of our students—and firms such as Young & Ayata or Besler & Sons—is to make something that looks simple or real, but is in fact, to use the currently trending term, a “parafiction” that slides through realism and fairy tales in such a way that you have a hard time telling the difference.
In this case, Quittenton used a method he probably picked up while interning at the Dutch firm MVRDV. The trick is to make something that at first appears to be one thing, but then turns out to be not so much something else but something undecidable. It is translucent, both literally and phenomenally.
The shelters at Taliesin West began after Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1937, started the “winter encampment” of the apprenticeship program he had founded in Spring Green, Wis., five years earlier. The apprentices were given Basque sheepherders tents, which were pyramid-shaped canvas devices. Wright and his apprentices laid out what were eventually 64 “pads” of concrete measuring 10 feet square, strewn across the Sonoran Desert to the north of the main campus. Over time, students built up low walls of “desert masonry” (local rocks they hauled onto the site and held together with as little concrete as they could manage) to protect them a bit from the winds and local critters.
Eventually, the shelters became more experimental, with shapes that range from tents hanging from poles, to free-form canvas shading structures, to rammed-earth enclosures. After years in which only some students chose to design and build their own shelter, that construction is now a mandatory graduation thesis “proof of concept,” and Quittenton and classmate Jose Amaya were the first to try out the new format.
When you come up to Site:168 (a name Quittenton chose precisely because it means nothing but sounds very specific and even slightly ominous), you think you are seeing a new version of the traditional shelter: a square masonry base on which the pyramid of canvas tent perches. As you come closer, however, you realize that something is off. The masonry is shiny, while the canvas is hard. It turns out that the base consists of plexiglass plates on which Quittenton printed digitally manipulated photographs of desert masonry walls on campus. The tent consists of metal plates printed with an exaggerated canvas pattern. What appears to be solid and obscure is light and translucent while what should be gauzy and translucent is heavy and opaque.
At The effect is one of estrangement, as you have to struggle to make sense of this reverse facsimile, in which materials, textures, and qualities have become transposed. But Site:168 has more to offer than its initial sight gag. During the day, the base gleams; at night it glows. The structure is thus a little bit of the city that surrounds Taliesin West on three sides brought onto the campus. The “tent,” meanwhile, fades into the sky, both day and night. From the inside, you have the experience of light coming up from the bottom instead of the top. Small slits between base and top give you views of the surrounding desert in an exaggerated version of the low, horizontal windows of which Wright was so fond.
Originally, Quittenton had planned for some even more spectacular effects. For instance, the bed was meant to be suspended from the solid tent: first, because it could be; second, because it would let him float; third, to keep him away from the crawling critters; and finally, so that he could surround himself with the social media and internet feeds he planned to project up against the white surfaces. In this way, he could look at the sparkling of human-made spots of lights rather than the night stars that have entranced and guided desert nomads for so many millennia. This part of the design never made it off the boards and waits for the next student who inhabits the shelter to perhaps carry it out: Each student moves into an already built shelter when they arrive at our school, adapting it to their purposes before they design and build their own.
Is Site:168 organic? Only in the sense that it is made out of petroleum products and metal ore derivatives, and thus is like anything else that humans make from the things they take out of the Earth. As with any other building, the materials used in the shelter have been manipulated for effect to the point that any relation to whatever their original state might have been is now only a reference. The difference here is that the discrepancy between reality and representation is deliberate and magnified. In that way, Quittenton’s design makes you wonder about the nature of organicity and provides you with a new take on the traditions that we at Taliesin value to such an extent that we sometimes do not question them. This is the way of experimentation, which is at the heart of any good architecture school and, I hope, is absolutely central to the way we carry on Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy at the School of Architecture at Taliesin.